Articles | Volume 20, issue 5
Education and communication
04 May 2016
Education and communication |  | 04 May 2016

A "mental models" approach to the communication of subsurface hydrology and hazards

Hazel Gibson, Iain S. Stewart, Sabine Pahl, and Alison Stokes

Abstract. Communicating information about geological and hydrological hazards relies on appropriately worded communications targeted at the needs of the audience. But what are these needs, and how does the geoscientist discern them? This paper adopts a psychological "mental models" approach to assess the public perception of the geological subsurface, presenting the results of attitudinal studies and surveys in three communities in the south-west of England. The findings reveal important preconceptions and misconceptions regarding the impact of hydrological systems and hazards on the geological subsurface, notably in terms of the persistent conceptualisation of underground rivers and the inferred relations between flooding and human activity. The study demonstrates how such mental models can provide geoscientists with empirical, detailed and generalised data of perceptions surrounding an issue, as well reveal unexpected outliers in perception that they may not have considered relevant, but which nevertheless may locally influence communication. Using this approach, geoscientists can develop information messages that more directly engage local concerns and create open engagement pathways based on dialogue, which in turn allow both geoscience "experts" and local "non-experts" to come together and understand each other more effectively.

Short summary
This paper provides empirical evidence for the value of using a psychology-based approach to communication of hydrology and hazards. It demonstrates the use of the "mental models" approach to risk assessment used in a regional geoscience context to explore the conceptions of the geological subsurface between experts and non-experts, and how that impacts on communication.